'They didn't treat me as a Gypsy': Romani Refugees in Toronto.

Author:Levine-Rasky, Cynthia


With organized hate crime and institutionalized discrimination, thousands of European Roma have fled to Canada, where they claim refugee status. Their arrival coincided with far-ranging reforms to the refugee determination system in 2012-13 in addition to some actions aimed specifically at the Roma. Against this backdrop, former and current Romani refugee claimants substantiate the experience of migration and settlement, beginning with the first moments after arrival, to the tasks of finding housing and work. Agency and resilience are evinced, despite the government's multiple instruments used against asylum-seekers. Romani refugees' lives show how, for transnational groups, belongingness is always contested and the meaning of home is always nuanced.


En raison des crimes organises motives par la haine et de la discrimination institutionnelle, des milliers de Roms europeens ont cherche asile au Canada ou ils ont effectue des demandes du statut de refugie. Leur arrivee a coincide avec des reformes de grande ampleur en 2012-13 portant sur le systeme de determination du statut de refugie, ainsi que des mesures visant les Roms particulierement. C'est dans ce contexte que les anciens ainsi que les actuels demandeurs du statut de refugie d'origine rom realisent l'experience de migration et d'installation, en allant des premiers moments apres leur arrivee jusqu'aux demarches qu'ils entreprennent pour trouver des logements et du travail. Un esprit d'actualisation et de perseverance se manifeste, malgre les multiples mesures imposees par le gouvernement a l'encontre des chercheurs d'asile. L'experience des refugies d'origine rom demontre que, pour les groupes transnationaux, l'appartenance est toujours soumise a la contestation, et que l'idee de domicile est toujours conditionnelle.


The Roma are an ethnically distinct social group who originate from the northwestern Indian provinces of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Sindh, from where they departed in the eleventh century. They are the largest minority group in Europe with a population of 10-12 million. (2) The Roma population in Canada has been estimated at 80,000, but with immigration since the 1990s it has likely reached 100,000. They have lived in Canada for over 100 years, (3) but it was only in the 1990s that their immigration status and larger numbers converged to elicit a response from the Canadian government. The demise of state socialism, rampant discrimination, and the rise of anti-Roma violence by paramilitary groups and others are among factors responsible for their migration as asylum-seekers from Europe to Canada. Between 1998 and 2015, 35,015 refugee claims were made by people from Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries with large Romani populations: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia (comprising 7.3 per cent of claims from all countries). Hungarians represent 67 per cent of that figure, of which perhaps 85 per cent are Roma. (4) Reception to the Romani newcomers in Canada was largely unfavourable as they encountered legislative and policy barriers to their settlement. Those seeking to settle in Canada express agency and resilience while the memory of systemic racism in Europe is fresh, and with the knowledge that their desire to remain in the country may be thwarted at any moment. Ethnographic research with Romani individuals in Toronto produced rich narratives of resourcefulness and optimism. Stories attest not only to personal capacities for endurance during the travails of migration, but also for hope vested in the early foundations of belongingness.

Overview of the Research

During my ethnographic research from 2011 to 2015 at the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, for which I received ethics approval in the summer of 2011, I interviewed forty-six individuals from a cross-section of Roma and collected hundreds of pages of field notes, communications, and documents. As an active volunteer, I was involved in programs and events, grant-writing, organizational development, advocacy, and activism. Recruitment for interviews stemmed largely from my contacts at the Roma Community Centre, but also from some local Romani musicians whom I have known since 1998.1 took a grounded theory approach to the qualitative analysis of the data in which seven broad salient categories emerged: the Roma people, the effects of anti-Roma racism, life in Europe, life in Toronto, life as a refugee claimant, personal goals and achievements, and community building. This article focuses on two of these--life in Toronto, and life as a refugee claimant--from the perspective of former and current refugee claimants. Other themes are explored elsewhere. (5) Interviews were about two hours long, recorded and transcribed, and translated where necessary. The fourteen adult refugee claimants and their children (comprising ten families) had arrived between 2009 and 2012 from Hungary and Croatia. By the spring of 2015, four of the ten claimant families had been accepted as refugees, and they had received permanent residence status. One was rejected and had received a repatriation order, three were still waiting for a decision, and the fate of two is unknown.

My aim was to hear individuals' stories and to embed their words in a social context in order to understand this historically oppressed group. Consistent with community-based participatory research, my work is informed by the principle of epistemic privilege of community members in which their critical insights are recognized as authoritative on the basis of their authentic and personal knowledge. (6) Highlighting refugee voices counteracts the tendency to construct refugees as of a universal kind--victims instead of actors engaged at a particular juncture with history. But refugees are the best experts of their situations, and when their experiences are discounted or regarded as untrustworthy, they are rendered speechless. (7) Their experience is depoliticized, even as it conveys crucial narratives of political, historical, and cultural practices on which refugee aid programs and determination decisions are made. For this reason, research must reserve a central forum for refugees' voices.

In Canada, several researchers have respected this approach. While diverging in emphasis, conclusions affirm refugees' productive capacities. Omidvar and Wagner dedicate their exclusive purpose to thirty refugees' stories covering the fullest range of experiences. (8) Lacroix's eight interview participants in Montreal describe rebuilding their identity out of the stigma, material hardship, loss of status, and subjection to state intervention that they experience. (9) Interviews with ten asylum-seekers in Montreal led Manjikian to affirm refugees' agency as they create meaningful lives on their own terms. (10) Freund shows how the fifty-three refugees in Winnipeg from he obtained oral histories make "home along the journey." Their tethers are just as likely to be to kin or to the local as they are to be the nation. (11) In his field research on Romani refugees in Toronto, Acuna discusses interviews with two individuals and discovers that "resilience can very well mean the capacity of starting anew." (12) A few European authors have captured some Romani refugees' voices about reasons for migration to Canada, work, and challenges to settlement. (13)

Interview participants entrusted me with memories "overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding ... events in excess of [my] frames of reference." (14) Stories I heard of life in Europe--homes set aflame, gang rape, a child deliberately attacked by a dog--taxed my capacity to theorize this knowledge. Encouraged by critical race sociologist David Theo Goldberg, I sought to sustain an "openness to the deep and abiding influences of those deemed Other ... and being moved by the positions and ideas of those who have been marginalized." (15) Against the disturbing backdrop of their transnational encounters, their narratives of resilience and optimism are a testament to strength in adversity. The specific nature of this adversity can be learned by examining two sets of conditions for Romani refugee claimants. One is located in CEE in the form of persecution propelling their migration outward. The second is located in Canada in the form of policy changes oriented against asylum-seekers in general, and sometimes against the Roma specifically. Each of these sites is explored in the next sections.

Conditions in Europe

For the Roma, state socialism in CEE was both beneficial and costly. The Roma's socioeconomic status improved with assured employment, housing, and education, but formal equality was granted at the expense of cultural assimilation. Along with centralized states' increased social and political control over them, (16) kinship ties were weakened and traditional crafts were lost. (17) The Roma's manner of life was regarded as divergent from socialist ideals. Soviet leaders implemented programs to suppress it by putting the Roma to work on the socialist production line or as unskilled workers in industry. As a consequence, the entrepreneurship and versatility that had been the Roma's conventional means of subsistence was extinguished. When...

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